It’s been an extraordinary day here at I Doubt It. An article I wrote eleven months ago was mentioned in comments on The Atlantic. I stared fuzzily at the hit counter for several seconds this morning, thinking that somehow the decimal point was in the wrong place.
Then someone followed up with a post to Reddit, and all hell broke loose. So far today there have been more than 6,000 visitors to the blog. I won’t lie, that’s better than average.
The article in question concerned the – let’s be clear from the start about this – apparently deranged accusations being levelled against Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun, both of whom have held leading positions at Google and at Stanford University, by a man calling himself Peter Cao. (Posts that seem to be by the same hand have appeared under the names M Cao, PeterCaoFruit, and Cao Ming.)
He does this by a strange form of stalking: Whenever these men are mentioned in a forum open to comments, Cao will turn up to make his accusations. Search on his name and either of the others and you will see it, again and again, relentlessly. Often he’s the first to comment, giving a distinct impression that he spends a great deal of time on this. His claim, or at least the most specific claim among vaguer accusations of crime, is that Thrun and Schmidt are somehow implicated in the murder of a Stanford student.
What some people have asked – have had to ask – on comments here and on those other forums, is whether there could be anything in this, though I don’t think anyone who actually reads Cao’s words entertains that idea for long. It would be wrong however to dismiss him as a raving madman simply because he writes like a raving madman. Perhaps he sounds less coherent than he really is because of poor English skills. Even if he is unbalanced, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he is telling truth.
And if it were true, well, what a story. The man notorious for saying “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” caught in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice! And who could better orchestrate a cover-up than the CEO of Google? It would be easy to ridicule such a Perfect Crime, but we can’t dismiss it purely on the grounds of being dramatic. The unlikely may happen less often than the likely, but it happens.
And on the face of it there are questionable aspects to the official story. As briefly as possible: The dead person is Mengyao Zhou, an apparently excellent young Stanford doctoral student who suddenly disappeared in 2007. Some days later her car was found almost a hundred miles away, in Santa Rosa. They found her in the boot (trunk).
Now one’s automatic assumption in those circumstances would be murder, but with more detail the picture changes. Her head was resting on a garment folded up for a pillow (paywall protected, full text here). With her were several empty bottles of a sleeping pill; receipts and CCTV showed her to have purchased the pills. The coroner described the level of the drug in her system as potentially fatal, and an email that Zhou sent to her 16-year-old sister as “consistent with a goodbye note.” A coroner’s verdict of suicide was reached in 2008.
It remains puzzling that Mengyao Zhou should lock herself in the boot of her car, so far from home, to commit suicide by overdose. But then you can’t expect someone killing themselves to make choices that appear rational to others. If it’s not tasteless to speculate, perhaps she felt ashamed and wanted to hide herself.
The only evidence of foul play that has been offered by anyone is a second autopsy, commissioned by her father two months after the death. He claims that it found signs of blunt force trauma. This hasn’t been made public as far as I can find, but the original examiner, Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County coroner’s office, reviewed it and said she stood by her original finding that there were no signs of trauma.
So the only interpretations really possible are (a) a suicide, and a father who, quite understandably, refuses to accept that, or (b) a murder and elaborate cover-up, involving two police departments and a coroner. While the latter isn’t impossible, what makes it unconvincing is the absence of any motive or a credible suspect. No one seems to have suggested who would want to kill Mengyao Zhou, or why.
Except Peter Cao. He asserts that Mengyao Zhou was murdered by or with the help of Schmidt and Thrun of Google, or by people “on their side”.
Why? Well Cao claims that in 2004, while a Stanford student, he was assaulted by a female colleague. There is a detailed account of his side of the story in what appears to be a statement to college authorities or campus police, here. It seems that later she accused him of sexual assault, though again I must emphasise that I can find no account except his to go on (and yes, I’ve tried search engines other than Google…). That could mean anything from a perfect cover-up to the whole thing being a fantasy of Cao’s, but I assume the most likely explanation is that the matter was dealt with on campus and no formal charges were ever brought.
So we have no way to judge who was in the right here, but perhaps that’s not relevant. The important point is that Cao asserts that Thrun, or a faction he believes to exist in the faculty supporting Thrun, took her side because they are both German. While it sounds highly unprofessional, there’s nothing impossible about that. There can certainly be groups that work within institutions to discriminate against non-members. It is plausible that Cao was a victim of injustice, discrimination or even blatant racism.
What Cao goes on to allege is that this group forms part of a Mafia-like collaboration of fascists which had Mengyao Zhou murdered as a personal demonstration to him that they could get away with killing any Chinese Stanford student they liked.
I leave the reader to decide how probable they think that is.